McLaren says that it wanted to peer into the future and "imagine the art of the impossible." The result of that vision quest by the company's design team is the McLaren MP4-X Formula One concept race car. This is a sleek, powerful ride that makes the current crop of cutting-edge technology used in F1 racing look primitive, with everything about this concept, from its sculpted exterior to its hidden gems of advanced electronic wizardry, far out, but achievable.
Formula One is considered by many motorsports enthusiasts to be the pinnacle of automotive racing. It's where the most elite drivers perform in the most advanced of vehicles and the most stringent of grids. One tiny mistake can lose a race, with wins often measured in tenths of a second. And in F1 racing, McLaren holds a name that is held in the highest of esteem.
With the McLaren MP4-X, the company says we're seeing the future because everything in this concept race car is real, though some of it is at its earliest stages of conception. What the designers of the MP4-X are doing is showcasing the possible as being quite probable.
As with any race machine, this starts with the propulsion system. In cooperation with race partner Honda, McLaren design engineers looked at the future of motorsports fuels and lubricants, including electrical power, which is already a big part of racing. With the MP4-X, envisaging electrification and recharging through inductive coupling in the track means that the entire powertrain was rethought. This, in turn, meant that the chassis was completely rethought as well.
"With a new approach to the internal combustion engine you could radically redistribute the chassis layout at the rear of the car, with different areas that could be exploited aerodynamically," says Anthony Law, Systems Engineer, McLaren Applied Technologies.
The vision? Package much of the technology as an integral part of the car's very substructure. This approach sees the McLaren MP4-X design integrate "thin batteries" into the crash structure of the car, while the bodywork includes solar cells for additional charging. This allows electricity to be stored and distributed close to where it is used and allow traditional regenerative systems, such as through braking, to be augmented by the energy captured through the MP4-X's solar skin.
Another potentially controversial, but forward-thinking portion of the McLaren MP4-X, likely noticed by race fans right away, is the use of a canopy on the car. McLaren believes that, given the current mindset of the race industry and the general consensus among drivers that a canopy is an inevitable concession to safety on the track, the MP4-X should have one.
The design requirements of this particular canopy were three-fold: it must allow easy and fast access in the event of an emergency, it needs to gives the driver better visibility during harsh or low-light conditions, but also let spectators at the circuit or watching on TV be able to see inside in certain conditions.
What those race fans see inside the car might be very different from what we imagine and can see today. For McLaren designers, the obvious next step in the evolution of Formula One racing is the removal of physical controls, which would be replaced by thought control.
McLaren and its partner multinational pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) have been researching neurological impulses through charitable work in research for ALS and similar diseases. Bringing this to the racetrack, instead of holding a steering wheel and pressing pedals, the car would instead be controlled via the driver's brain patterns and gestures. Far out? Sure. Possible? Eventually.
The structure of the car isn't just electrified to store energy, it's also resilient and nearly unbreakable. If two cars made of a material that absorbs impacts and then returns to its original shape collide.. well, they would hit, crumple, and then re-form to their original shape. If they're hit again, the same safety that was there in the beginning is still there. This makes the car capable of absorbing multiple impacts without getting more and more shredded as it does so. This helps protect the driver because many F1 racing deaths are caused not by the impact that disabled the car, but by the after impacts when the out of control car hits things as it loses its kinetic energy or as other cars impact it coming around the circuit.
This structure would also provide immediate intelligence to the pit engineers, with the car able to assess its condition, provide "high-fidelity knowledge of its own structures," and not only aid in getting the car back into the race, if possible, but also in understanding the accident and helping with future prevention.
Now we come to aerodynamics. The car isn't just sleek and imposing as a racer. It's also dynamically capable of changing its shape to aid aerodynamics on the fly. The surfaces of the MP4-X's bodywork can be electrified to cause a change in shape when certain aerodynamic loads or conditions would improve performance. When the current is cut off, the materials return to their original shape.
That's not all, though. The air around the car can also be plasmafied. Electrodes in the surface of the car's wings electronically control the McLaren MPX-4's aerodynamics, dialing in downforce for cornering and outward for straights. With powerful electrical charging during the turns, these same electrodes would turn air into plasma around those aero wings, removing drag.
"It's banned in the current F1 regs, but it's great for achieving high top speeds, particularly at circuits like Monza, where you want to shed all the downforce along the straights and then turn it back on again for the corners," says Geoff McGrath, Chief Innovation Officer, McLaren Applied Technologies.
This is racing, of course, so don't forget the tires. On the McLaren MP4-X, the P Zero tires are augmented not only with pressure sensors, but with wear sensors to determine their expected lifespan during the race. This gives pit crews a much better ability to predict the best time to change tires and would avoid the blowouts that are often the cause of accidents during a race.
Finally, the bread and butter of racing. Advertisements. Sponsorships could be tuned to better appeal to race goers and fans. Out go conventional stickers to be replaced by digital billboard-style advertisements at key positions on the car. These could be leveraged to reflect ads that closely match the browsing history of a fan's smart phone or gadgets, for example. One person watching through the television might see an ad for breakfast cereal, while another, watching the same car in the same race at the same time, might see an ad for Caribbean vacations. As the McLaren team puts it: "Since when have the consumer demands of the fan in Lithuania and the fan in Lubbock, Texas been similar?"
We see that not only is the McLaren MPX-4 a beautifully far out concept in terms of appearances, but it's a vision of the technology with potential to drive changes in the sport.